He rarely steps onto the field, being more comfortable cheering his team on and encouraging the crowd in the bleachers to do the same. But after 4 years on the Sachem North High School football team, Michael E. “Slats” Slattery took to the field on the Oct. 25 game against Lindenhurst, where he scored his first career catch and fumble recovery.
What may have been a common occurrence for any other player, was immensely more significant for Slattery, who has a developmental disability.
“My dream was to catch a ball,” Michael said. “My dream was never to get a fumble. Put them two together, it’s, like, amazing.”
Michael was born on May 4, 1996, 6 and 1/2 weeks premature, which led to loss of oxygen at birth. This episode resulted in his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, speech delay, low IQ and epilepsy, which that manifests itself in seizures.
Despite this, he doesn’t believe that his disability defines him and shouldn’t hold him back.
“I have disabilities, big deal. What’s gonna happen? I just try working harder and harder so that I don’t seem like I have one,” Michael said. “Sometimes it gets annoying because it stops me from getting a license earlier and it stops me from doing stuff that all my friends are doing.”
His dedication is evident in that Michael will not miss practices or games — he has only missed one game to visit the University of Notre Dame. He has become a fixture on the team, playing a managerial role for a majority of his time with the team. In the few times he has played, he has usually gone in when the team is winning or losing by a large margin. The Lindenhurst game was no different as Sachem North ultimately defeated Lindenhurst 31-6.
“We all treat him the same. He’s part of everything that we do.” said Bryan Gresalfi, one of Michael’s teammates on the Sachem North Flaming Arrows, who have known each other since “pee wee” football as kids. “He’s my little buddy.”
For the Sachem North Flaming Arrows and their families, Michael’s achievement was well worth celebrating. Laura Slattery felt so strongly about her son’s accomplishment that she wrote a letter to her Sachem Patch, which got shared on social media until it caused Laura’s boss to convince her to enter Michael’s moment into the NFL’s “Together We Make Football” contest. The contest invites football fans to share their stories of why they love the sport for a chance to win tickets to Super Bowl XLVIII. As of this writing, Michael Slattery’s story had 1,642 likes on the contest website, togetherwemakefootball.com. Despite being one of the popular entries, the story wasn’t chosen by a panel of judges to be one of the 10 finalists.
But that doesn’t matter to Laura Slattery, who credits the Sachem North football community for making the moment special enough to write about for the NFL contest. Seeing her son have his moment and the Sachem North crowd’s reaction was a reward in and of itself.
“Sachem football is a family. When it happened everybody was cheering ‘Slats’, we were crying. The team was lifting Michael into the air and hugging him. it was contagious. When I got in the car I was getting calls and text on my phone: ‘We heard about the game, we can’t believe it,’” Laura Slattery said, describing that night.
Michael personally got congratulated by John Dolan, principal of Sachem North; James Nolan, superintendent of Sachem Central School District; and Sachem North alumnus, Dalton Crossan, who currently plays football at the University of New Hampshire.
For Michael, the moment doesn’t come close to the satisfaction he feels in having participated and befriended his team. He describes them as brothers he’s never had before. He says he’s already anticipating their 10 year high school reunion with his teammates.
“I couldn’t ask for a better team than what I have right now. I’m gonna miss them when we all graduate,” Michael said.
However, the memento given to him by David Falco, head coach of Sachem North football, is something that will never leave his side, according to him — the game ball. The gift was made more significant by the fact that Falco rarely, if ever, has given out game balls. The first night he got the ball, Michael slept with it in this bed.
But he also feels an obligation to the fans for coming out to support the team.
“I do this for the fans. Every game my goal is to lose my voice, cheer and scream the loudest. If I’m not doing that, then I’m not screaming loud enough. A lot of people ask me: are you a football player or a cheerleader?,’” Michael said with a grin.
This comes as no surprise to those close to him. He is well known for his almost ceaseless amount of energy, a characteristic he puts to good use at Sachem North games.
“He is kind of the mascot in a way,” joked Laura Slattery.
Michael feels so strongly about his time with the team, he feels he would be a different person had he never become interested in it. He says he was naturally shy but now feels more outgoing. He also says he wouldn’t be as well known at his school and probably wouldn’t be doing as well academically because the football team requires all players to be in good academic standing, a policy the coaching staff enforces by checking that their players are passing their classes. In fact, Sachem North High School holds a 9th period, essentially extra help for students, which is mandatory for athletes if their grades are slipping.
The other Michael was a possibility had certain decisions been made differently amongst his parents and coaches. Michael J. Slattery pushed for his son’s involvement in some sort of activity.
“My wife didn’t want to put him in any kind of sports. She wanted to put him in, what my daughters says, a bubble — keep the bubble boy in there. And I said, ‘you have to go and let him do something,’” Michael J. Slattery said of the initial talks about Michael playing in sports.
For Laura Slattery, the apprehension to involve her son was instinctual as a parent of a developmentally delayed child.
“Because of his seizure disorder, I’ve been very overprotective of him. When you have a child with disabilities, it’s a lot to ask of the team, the coaches, the other players. You worry about him fitting in and maybe setting his goals too high.”
She has since turned around her opinion and accepted that football has been a positive influence for her son. Much in part due to the coaches who’ve worked with them about Michael’s needs. In the time they’ve known each other, Falco has become somewhat of a mentor for Michael over the years since Laura reluctantly dropped him off at football camp with Falco.
“Michael has become an integral part of our program. He’s a motivator for younger kids. He’s as excited about Sachem football as you can be. So as the head coach you always love having guys like that in the program, and I respect Michael for coming out here every day and working as hard as he can, even though he’s not one of the star players,” Falco said.
Other than Michael’s father, Falco was the other person responsible for pushing Laura on loosening her over-protective instincts. And he did it by first involving Michael in his team with a managerial role. Well aware about Michael’s disabilities, Falco has made conscious choices about when he would allow Michael to go into games. The reason for this is besides worrying about his seizures, Michael is much smaller than typical players, weighing in at about 140 pounds just last year, but has since bulked up to 180 pounds. That coupled with his aggressively going for the ball, makes risk of injury too high to put him in games for long.
In addition to giving Michael a role, Falco has made it a point to treat Michael as he does his other players. The same academic threshold, the same practice and games, the same whistles and the same yelling.
For Michael and Sachem North football, the celebration wasn’t over. On Nov. 30, Sachem North defeated Farmingdale, 27-21, for the Class I Long Island Championship. They are the first in the program’s history, since Sachem split into two districts, that has achieved the title.
Michael isn’t done with Sachem. He plans on attending Suffolk Community College in Fall 2014. Falco has offered Michael an assistant coaching position with the team for however long he plans on staying local.
“I’m happy that coach has opened the doors for me to be a coach. That’s what I want to be when I get older,” Michael said.